How old is ancient? How new is the future? #travel #humor #India

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At an ancient temple site I overheard a father telling his child, “It’s more than a thousand years old.” The child was skeptical. “Is that more than nineteen?” [All images unless otherwise credited: ©Janine Smith & Jayalakshmy Ayyer, 2020]

I agree with the kid. As an American, our country isn’t 250 years old yet. Sure there are some Viking graves, cave paintings, and native peoples whose traditions extend for centuries earlier. But for the most part, we rarely encounter anything over a century.

But India, where I’m traveling, isn’t like that. In my annual trips over the past six years, the India I’ve visited has been flinging itself into the future of technical innovation. It’s also been working to preserve a past that includes some of the world’s oldest known civilizations.

On this current trip, we’ve seen stunningly sophisticated sites with art and architecture created over five millennia ago.

Old or new? 1500+ year old Cave Temple with VW prototype? [Cave Temple #16 at Ellora, UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India.] 

But we’ve also been regularly mobbed by cellphone-wielding Indians seeking selfies with foreigners. They range from terrified children whose parents thrust them at us, to charming grannies, to our guide at an ancient temple who whipped a late-model mobile phone out of his minimal loincloth, to belligerent teens demanding, “Selfie, Madam?”

On earlier trips, we got all our directions via queries shouted by our driver to passersby. This year, GPS is our guide. On previous years, we loved experimenting with a variety of auto-rickshaws, taxis, private drivers, etc. But suddenly there’s an Uber-type app that dispatches your Ola driver almost instantly, delivering you to your destination in air-conditioned style, complete with touch screens offering maps, news, entertainment, etc.

On earlier trips, significant time was allotted to the never-ending search for western toilets, and even more rare toilet paper. (Much, MUCH clandestine paper napkin liberation occurred at each of our restaurant stops.) But now almost every regular restaurant boasts facilities and even TP. 

Toilet door signs of India

So yes, India is changing.

Take our current trip for example. It had been planned for months for early January. Then I woke up on Christmas Eve with a toothache. By Christmas Day, there was a swelling the size of a walnut in my mouth, but no boats from our little Scottish island were going to the mainland that day. When I finally made it to my dentist in Glasgow, he confirmed my fears**: I needed two root canals. But it would be months before I could get it done via the NHS, and all the private specialists I tried had offices closed until the second week of January.

**[No, these were not my WORST fears. He’s already been elected. It really helps to keep things in perspective…]

When I told him about our upcoming India trip, my dentist was delighted. “You’re so lucky! India has some of the best dental care in the world,” he told me. “Just get it done there.” I told him I hadn’t been in the habit of considering double root canals a good luck sign, but I’d give it a shot. My friend Jaya recommended a brother’s daughter’s husband with a popular practice in Mumbai. Dr. Hingorani instantly gave me a family appointment and assured me they would fit follow-up appointments around our itinerary. Now that’s India!

My hero: Dr. Hingorani, Mumbai

So the first morning of the trip found us sharing breakfast in Mumbai with Dr. Hingorani and his wife before whisking downstairs to his clinic for my ‘lucky’ double root canal. My favorite part was the state of the art X-ray machine, whose soothing voiceover recording told me to close my eyes, played a jaunty tune during the scan, and then told me it was all done, congratulating me on doing a good job of holding still with my eyes closed (a life skill developed thanks to my father’s driving).

Hours later, our driver picked us up and we were on the road for a ten-hour drive to Aurangabad and adventure. I couldn’t feel half my face, was convinced I was drooling, and popping ibuprofen like they were M&Ms, so details of that drive are a bit fuzzy.

But I do remember a few things. There were unexpected sights such as the roadside food mall where we stopped for lunch. In addition to the usual Indian food vendors, it held a Starbucks (awesome toilets!), Kentucky Fried Chicken, Baskin-Robbins, Subway, and McDonalds.

And there were also things I expected to see but didn’t. Not only were there no cows on the freeway, but we didn’t see the usual lineup of men casually using the roadside as toilets, while the piles of plastic rubbish we’d come to expect along the roads had virtually disappeared as well. Jaya explained how Indian government initiatives had built over thirty million toilets over the past few years, while others discouraged plastic use. (There are steep fines in some cities like Mumbai for even carrying a single-use plastic bag!)

And then there were the weddings. Everywhere we looked, we saw wedding halls, parades, and signs for jewelry and wedding supplies. Our hotel had nonstop weddings booked back-to-back. We peeked through the main hall to see one bride and groom still eating their lunch as workers dismantled their orange and pink decorations in preparation for the next wedding’s red and pink decor.

Loud enough to wake us (and perhaps the recently deceased), a wedding band piped us out of the hotel drive in early morning.

At our next hotel in Pune, we drove in past one wedding in progress on the front lawn. The lobby was full of gorgeously dressed guests, while the attendant who carried our bags told me there were up to five weddings going on simultaneously. He said it was not at all uncommon for guests to attend an entire wedding, give over their gift, and not realize they had been at the wrong wedding until afterwards.

 

In modern India, where weddings are celebrated everywhere you look, less than 1% of women are unmarried by age 45,  and the divorce rate is the lowest in the world. But divorce has doubled over the past twenty years, and three times that many are separated. In an India where weddings are a fifty-billion dollar industry and where the over-the-top romance of Bollywood sells more tickets every year than Hollywood, over 90% of marriages are still arranged.

While some may see the increasing number of marriages ending in divorce or separation as a bad thing because it’s almost always the woman who ends up worse off, to others it’s a sign women are feeling more financially secure and willing to face life on their own.

Another thing that has changed in the past few years is the intensity of demand for pictures with foreigners. In an India where everyone has a mobile phone and most have internet access, the polite and even shy requests for photos we encountered our first trip six years ago have grown into insistence that borders on stalking.

At popular sites, we can barely get through the throngs taking their own pictures, almost always blocking out and frequently facing away from the treasures displayed. The poor guards’ whistles sound nonstop as they attempted to keep selfie-takers from hanging off or climbing the sculptures for a better view of themselves. But apparently the only thing that could distract them is the one missing piece for their digitized composition: women in western dress. “Selfie Madam?” is the incessant refrain following us across India. Over the six annual visits to India, we’ve gotten used to this plea and have developed a rule: we only pose with children. But…there are a LOT of children in India…

Of course, some things haven’t changed yet. Beggars still knock on your car window and hold up their children. If you work up the nerve to cross a street in any major city, you still have to look in ALL the directions, watch out for the cows, and be careful where you step. And unless you want to experience India’s world-class medical expertise up close and personal, you still shouldn’t drink the water.

But if you want to see an India full of stunning historical and artistic treasures, you’re in luck. You’ll find toilets along the way, on-demand drivers to get you there, and familiar fast food choices. You can get a terrific root canal, amazing food, and all the photos with total strangers you ever/never wanted.

Has India changed? Well, a little girl from a small rural town can grow up, go to the States to attend the University of Chicago, and share a flat with two friends. Forty-plus years later, they can all meet up in India every year, to travel, search for toilets, explore antiquities, and watch the future unfold.

Selfie Madam?